April 12, 2016 11:21
Disaffection is spreading among the North Korean elite who feathered their nest under previous rulers but are unsettled by the capricious decisions of current leader Kim Jong-un.
A string of defections of relatively senior officials followed the brutal execution of former eminence grise Jang Song-taek in late 2013. Jang had reportedly sown up a lot of business with China and established a network of patronage throughout the North Korean ruling class that threatened Kim's authority.
Over the last two years alone, around 20 senior Workers Party, state and military officials have defected to South Korea.
Under former leader Kim Jong-il, defections were common among ordinary people, but he kept the elite sweet with gifts of cars, watches and other privileges. But since Kim Jong-un stepped into power, he has cracked down on the defection routes of ordinary people but scared the elite as well.
One researcher at a state-run think tank said, "Rising dissent among the elite could lead to a crisis for Kim Jong-un."
Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters Monday that the defection of a senior spy may be "a sign" of disaffection among the elite.
The man was a colonel in the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, which was launched in 2009 by combining three military and Workers Party departments and reports directly to Kim Jong-un. It is presumed responsible for a series of GPS jamming and other attacks against the South like planting box mines in the demilitarized zone.
Sources say members of the elite are so scared they are inventing excuses to decline promotions and clamor to be posted overseas to avoid the brutal purges Kim has implemented since he came to power five years ago. An estimated 130 mid- to high-ranking officials have been purged.
Many officials put in requests for medical treatment overseas or sick leave, sources said. Even a top-ranking official like Army politburo chief Hwang Pyong-so traveled abroad last year to have his back problems treated.
"The higher the rank, the greater the stress from possibly being purged, which often leads to physical problems," a source said. "Senior officials often cite illness as an excuse to get as far away from Kim Jong-un as possible."
Workers Party secretary Choe Ryong-hae was sent to a reeducation camp with his wife late last year after complaining about Kim. Once touted as the North's No. 2 official, Choe organized a massive torchlight rally last year marking the 70th anniversary of the Workers Party.
But Kim had no praise for the feat, which prompted Choe to complain to aides who duly ratted him out to their leader, and Choe had to undergo a grueling course of reeducation at a camp in South Hamgyong Province.
Under Kim Jong-il's brutal rule, a senior position was a prime goal among the North Korean elite, because while he had no compunction starving ordinary people to death, throwing them in concentration camps or executing them in public, he showered his cronies with gifts and privileges. But now the privileged classes have started to fear for their lives.
One intelligence source said, "North Korean generals have become expendable. Officials are probably afraid to serve the fickle Kim Jong-un."
But even officials stationed abroad suffer tremendous pressure to send money back to the North.
"Earnings at North Korean trading companies and restaurants overseas have halved due to international sanctions, but the payment due has doubled," a source in China said. "Failure to meet payments leads to execution so we could see a lot more defections."
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